Womenswear

HOW THE EAST WAS WON

Italian family business Max Mara holds firmly to its identity as a beacon of timeless style, so when it came to celebrating 25 years in Japan, the brand emphasised its classic Italian roots, much to the delight of the local audience. Here, a story for Wish magazine from my trip to Tokyo in November last year.

There is no shortage of Western brands — particularly in the designer and luxury sector — making a concerted effort to engage with and entice shoppers in the Asian market. Short of moving Milan and Paris fashion weeks to Shanghai or Singapore, trunk shows, special events, runway presentations and designer collaborations are ways of appealing to local consumers while retaining the European heritage of a brand. But for an enormous one-off event in November, upper-mid-market Italian family business Max Mara did things a little differently.

First, the venue was Tokyo, which is worth noting when the majority of other brands are looking to expand in more emerging markets such as China; its runway presentation featured few Asian models; the redesigned store in the Ginza district, unveiled to an assembled band of about 30 journalists from around the world, was created by an Italian firm, Duccio Grassi Architects, rather than a local one; and Paloma Faith, a British singer, was the evening’s entertainment. What all of this says about Max Mara, of course, is not that it has no interest in being relevant to a local consumer but that as a brand it chooses not to betray its heritage.

This, of course, all makes sense when put in the context of Max Mara, a brand built on the notion of timelessness. “When something is classic, it is near perfect,” says Giorgio Guidotti, Max Mara’s vice president of global communications and its most visible public face. “I often talk about this chair I have at my apartment. It was made in the 1930s but is still so beautiful, in the same way as an Hermes Birkin bag still is, too. In fashion you need to be a bit more seasonal, but the classics are so important, like the camel coat.”

That coat, like the Birkin, retains legendary status in the fashion industry. Created in collaboration with Anne Marie Beretta in 1981, the 101801 coat in wool and cashmere features oversized, kimono-style sleeves and has been included in every winter collection of the brand since, and was later celebrated in an exhibition, Coats! Max Mara, 55 Years of Italian Fashion, which began in Berlin and later toured China and Russia, with the title altered to suit the later date.

“There is so much going on in fashion now, what with resort and capsule collections, collaborations, high street diffusions — just so much information on so many levels — that it’s important to retain your identity; otherwise, everything gets lost in translation,” says Guidotti. “We are proud to say that we appeal to all generations because of this timelessness,” adds Luigi Maramotti, the group’s chairman. “The idea of looking at the market as pyramids of age groups is not modern to us.”

And although the Max Mara Group operates 19 lines under the Max Mara banner, including Sport Max and Max Mara Studio, its effortless, feminine aesthetic is carried across its broad product categories and at an accessible price point considering the quality of the fabrics and manufacturing. According to Maramotti, whose father Achille established the business, this ethos is the same as it was in 1951. “Following World War II was a terrible period of pain and strain, and women were obliged for many years to forget about their femininity, not allowed to express themselves,” he explains. “The basic idea of my father was to bring back creativity to a level of accessibility for women, to democratise fashion. That’s very obvious [today] but back then it was something very niche, haute couture.”

Today, the brand remains in the hands of Achille’s children, with Ignazio and Ludovica working in roles alongside Luigi. “People always ask when the company will go public, but we don’t need to go public,” says Guidotti. “We can be independent and make our own decisions without the influence of investors.” Indeed, in 2012 the Max Mara group reported turnover of €1.3 billion, drawn from 2369 stores in more than 100 countries.

Interestingly, Max Mara doesn’t appoint a figurehead designer to carry its torch. That’s not to say the collections are without direction — indeed, big names such as Karl Lagerfeld, Narciso Rodriguez, Dolce & Gabbana and Proenza Schouler have been responsible for collections since the 1970s — but the Max Mara name is more important to the brand than that of a designer, who will inevitably move on. “We believe in our brand, and while we have always [employed] the best people to support us with injections of creativity, to bring a fresh eye, they are just one part of the creative process,” explains Guidotti. “For us, creativity is a combination of the designer, the person who does the window displays, the photographers… creativity in fashion is rarely just about one person.”

While as a result the brand gains less traction in the press, this approach protects it from the whims and attitudes of a high-profile creative, as evidenced in the appointment of Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent and the column inches dedicated to its subsequent backlash. “If work with a great designer doesn’t work out well, you don’t need to make a major announcement to the world.”

That level of discretion has traditionally extended to the brand’s advertising as well, for which relatively unknown models are employed in lieu of Hollywood celebrities. But for the launch of the brand’s accessories collection in the middle of last year, it enlisted actress Jennifer Garner as its face for the campaign. The company had acquired a Tuscan factory earlier that year to produce its bags, thus expanding the range, and it wanted to make a statement about its accessories as fuel for further growing the business. “We feel we made the right choice with Jennifer because not only is she recognisable but she embodies the campaign slogan — timeless is now. She is beautiful, understated, and in this historical moment of fashion that is a jungle, timelessness is very important,” says Guidotti.

But despite its separation from the celebrity machine of Hollywood, Max Mara maintains a cultural association beyond clothing via its philanthropic support of film and fine arts initiatives. Established in 2006, the Max Mara Art Prize for Women is a biennial prize for British-based female artists, run in partnership with The Whitechapel Gallery. Previous winners have included Margaret Salmon, Hannah Rickards and Laure Prouvost. Each received a six-month residency in Italy to realise new work for exhibition at The Whitechapel Gallery and later acquired by Collezione Maramotti, a private and extremely significant contemporary art collection at the brand’s Italian headquarters. “It’s no secret that it is harder for women to break into art,” says Maramotti, “and this prize was a way of helping to promote their position in the art world and also the vibrancy of the London art scene.” And with its link to Italy via the residency, it is reminiscent of the classical Grand Tour, the Max Mara family acting as a sort of modern-day House of Medici through its philanthropic contemporary art patronage. And given the critical autonomy of the prize — no Max Mara staff sit on the judging panel — it imbues the brand with cultural longevity not often afforded in the rapidly changing world of fashion.

The brand also supports the Face of the Future prize at the annual Women in Film awards, designed to empower, promote and mentor women in the entertainment industry. The award, also instituted in 2006, is conferred on an actress at a turning point in her career, with past recipients including Ginnifer Goodwin, Emily Blunt, Chloe Grace Moretz and Hailee Steinfeld. “It’s a way of not only enlarging our visibility, which is important, but also to support and give back, because women are our market,” explains Guidotti.

As the brand’s first celebrity spokeswoman, Garner was a guest of the brand at the November event in Tokyo, which celebrated 25 years of the brand’s presence in Japan, where it maintains 149 stores, 65 of them Max Mara. According to team members from the Italian office, the concept behind the event was to offer a genuine Max Mara fashion experience rather than a simple celebration of a milestone.

“It’s about engaging customers and storytelling,” says Maramotti. “It goes beyond the physical garment and offers our customers memories and expands their perception of the brand.” And certainly the brand’s runway presentation, staged in century-old sumo wrestling arena Ryogoku Kokugikan, transformed for the event into a multi-tiered runway and stage, created a sense of fanfare for the 1000 guests in attendance.

But unlike other brands restaging runway shows in markets outside the traditional fashion capitals, Max Mara fused key looks from its spring and resort 2014 collections with pieces from the Max Mara Elegante Collection, with capes, layered tunics and cropped trousers in colours reminiscent of Henri Matisse. For its final section, the presentation was dedicated to evening, with the black, white and gold bustier dresses, evening jumpsuits and tuxedos from the Elegante Collection giving way to a spectacular explosion of vivid colour, as models appeared in ball skirts paired with white T-shirts — a show of the brand’s striking simplicity.

After the runway presentation, Faith performed a set of songs which, while perhaps lost on the many guests who did not speak English, seemed to electrify the vast space. But as Guidotti explained, Faith is an extraordinary talent who “embodies the values and spirit of Max Mara”, and this, more than localising the presentation, is important to the brand, further evidenced by the many Anglo-Saxon faces on the runway. But the approach seems to be working. “The Asian customer doesn’t want to see Asian models,” explained a Japanese guest seated next to me at the runway presentation. “It is Max Mara. It is an Italian brand. We want to see [the show] just as it would be in Milan.”